The death of Stephen Pitcairn and the court system
Stephen Pitcairn had come to Baltimore from his home in Florida, after attending college in Michigan and working with stem cells in Japan, where he became fluent in the language. Here, he assisted with breast cancer studies at the Johns Hopkins University and was poised to enroll in medical school.
He was four blocks from his Charles Village apartment Sunday night when two robbers took his life for cash and a cell phone.
Pitcairn had been in New York, hitching one of the cheap buses to visit his sister, according to a friend. He was on the phone with his mother when police say two robbers approached and demanded money. Police say his mother heard the robbery.
Pitcairn's death is likely to have a ripple effect on the Hopkins community for years to come, but the focus in the short-term at least is likely to shift to the suspects. Records obtained by The Baltimore Sun show that one of the suspects, John A. Wagner, had been charged in April with a robbery where he intimated that he was a member of the Black Guerilla Family gang, which seems tied to just about everything these days. But the charge was dropped the next month at the District Court level after the victim did not appear in court. The case is almost certain to touch off finger-pointing between prosecutors, who say police turn over flawed investigations, and police, who prosecutors are often too quick to roll over and drop charges.
It wasn't the first time Wagner got in trouble with the law, however. Court records show a car theft conviction from October 2009 in which he received 2 years in prison but served no time. Two years ago, he was convicted for assault, receiving an eight year suspended sentence. He violated his probation in that case three separate times, with each case resulting in a continuing of his probation.
I'm reminded of a conversation I had with Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III earlier this year about violent offenders who are put on probation but face no penalties when found in violation.
He told me believed that it was a simple matter of enforcing the conditions imposed by the court. Setting probation terms without enforcing them, particularly involving those who have been determined to be the state's most violent, sends a poor message to offenders, he said.
"I've heard many judges say, 'I'm going to suspend this sentence and give you probation, and heaven help you if you violate my conditions,' " said Bealefeld, raising his voice in frustration. "Do what you said you would do!"